By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — "You're giving us a plate of s*** and slapping us in the face," a veteran teacher at Elm Street School told the School Board when it considered the 2016-2017 school district budget Tuesday night. "I don't get where you're going with this."
The remarks reflected premonitions that positions would be eliminated and pay raises withheld as the board, like a gaggle of limbo dancers, struggles to craft a budget that will pass under the low bar set by the tax cap.
A roomful of employees and parents, a number of whom were one and the same, echoed concerns expressed a week before about the likely closure of the Child Development Program at the Huot Technical Center and the adverse effects of the tax cap on the district's capacity to serve its students.
Earlier this month, City Manager Scott Myers advised interim School Superintendent Phil McCormack that the allowable increase in the school district budget would be $386,684, a figure that could increase slightly with the additional value of new construction accrued this month. Each $1 million of value of new construction would support approximately $12,000 of additional expenditure.
Business Administrator Ed Emond explained that the district is facing increased costs of $660,00 for special education, $390,000 for health insurance, $60,00 for workers' compensation, $35,000 for utilities, $20,000 for contractual obligations and $15,000 for transportation, which are offset by a $190,000 reduction in debt service, leaving a net increase of $990,000. At the same time, he said that revenue from sources other than property taxes is projected to drop by $686,000, with a $400,000 decrease in state aid representing the largest share of the shortfall. Finally, Emond said that negotiations with the Laconia Education Association and other unions representing employees of the district are underway.
A schedule of proposed cuts amounting to $1,641,995 prepared by the Budget and Personnel Committee was distributed. The list included eliminating 11 teaching positions – two in the elementary schools, three at the middle school and six at the high school – along with two administrative positions, a councilor and two secretarial positions. Other proposed cuts included the elementary school band program and reductions to to athletic programs at the middle and high schools.
Stacie Sirois, who chairs the board, stressed that no decisions had been made or votes taken, while McCormack said that the list represented "choices," none of them easy to make.
Chad Vaillancourt, who was echoed by others, pointed to the tax cap and urged parents to "start pushing back at the city level" and "call your city councilor." He referred to the plight of the schools in Franklin, which have operated under a tax cap since 1989. "See what goes on in Franklin," he said, "and reach out to you friends and family."
Steve Bogert, who chairs the Zoning Board of Adjustment, disagreed, saying that the problem lay not with tax cap but with the downshifting of costs and obligations by the federal and state governments to the local school districts.
McCormack replied that while the downshifting of costs and obligations weighs on all school districts, the tax cap requires reductions in expenditures. "There is no other option," he said.
"I am not happy with the proposed budget," began Mike Persson, a member of the Budget and Personnel Committee, reading from a prepared statement, "and believe that the cuts to existing programs that it contemplates are going to have a lasting adverse impact on our students. However," he continued, "under the tax cap provisions of the City Charter, the School District cannot propose a budget based upon the actual educational needs of our students."
Persson conceded that "the proposed cuts represent the best possible scenario under the circumstances" and said he would vote for the budget, which he called "woefully inadequate," as the best means for the school district to meet its obligations under the tax cap.
Noting that the tax cap also bears heavily on the city budget, Persson said, "If the override provision of the tax cap were ever going to be used, this would be the year to do it. Unfortunately, " he went on, "even if the City Council were to override the cap, this override does not roll over to the following year, and we will be in the same or worse position next year." He concluded that "without a change to the override provision of the tax cap, this year's budget crisis will be an annual occurrence."
The School Board voted to budget to the maximum amount permitted by the tax cap, a figure that remains to be determined, then tabled the budget until it meets again on Thursday, March 24.